African Civil Wars and Turkey’s Involvement in Sudan

September 17, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 17 September 2023
African Civil Wars and Turkey’s Involvement in Sudan

Sudan's army chief, General al-Burhan, paid an official visit to Turkey on September 13. The Sudanese delegation included Foreign Minister al-Sadiq, intelligence chief Lieutenant General Mufaddal, and most importantly, Director General of the Defense Industries Corporation, Lieutenant General Mirghani Idris Suleiman. This composition suggested that the Sudanese army's visit to Ankara was not merely a charm offensive but also aimed at securing weapons purchases that could potentially alter the course of the ongoing conflict in the country. Burhan knocked on the right door, as Turkey's involvement in Libya and Ethiopia has demonstrated its willingness to take sides in Africa's bloody civil wars.

Burhan seized power in Sudan when he staged a coup with the backing of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, in 2021. Then, they started to rule the country without civilian oversight and accountability. Nonetheless, tensions were brewing between Burhan and Hemedti over the issue of integrating RSF fighters into the army. Unfortunately, resorting to violence is quite often the way to settle differences in the total absence of civilian politics.

In April this year, the two commanders made almost a simultaneous military move to eliminate the other and become the sole ruler of Sudan. As often happens on the battlefield, things did not go as planned. The clashes have resulted in thousands of deaths and countless crimes against the civilian population. Over half of Khartoum's population is estimated to have left the city to avoid being caught in the crossfire. According to the latest data released by the International Organisation for Migration, there are nearly 7.1 million internally displaced people within Sudan, of which 3.8 million have been displaced after the clashes in April. 

Despite the large-scale destruction and the absence of a clear path to victory for either party over five months, the warring sides continue to plan to overcome their enemies by force. This week, Hemedthi threatened to establish a government over the territory he controls if Burhan establishes a caretaker government based in Port Sudan. In other words, Sudan is currently embroiled in an internal conflict that could result in the emergence of two competing governments: one in the capital, Khartoum, led by RSF, and another in control of the eastern region, centered around the city of Port Sudan led by the Sudanese Armed Forces. The country is on the verge of a full-scale civil war, as Volker Perthes, former Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan, points out. A repeat of the Libyan case will be catastrophic for the region. 

In these clashes, while the Sudanese army maintains total air supremacy, it falls short when it comes to prevailing in urban warfare. Armed drones are an ideal solution to bridge this gap, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) currently operate a small drone fleet, albeit with limited success. This is where Turkey could play a crucial role. None of the Sudanese armed drones in their arsenal can match the capabilities of Turkish drones, which are readily available and easily deployable. If the Sudanese Armed Forces can procure Turkish armed drones, it will alter the balance of power on the field. 

Turkey’s involvement in Africa’s messy civil wars with its drones is certainly nothing new. Turkey intervened in the Libyan civil war with its armed drones in 2019 when the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army advanced toward Tripoli. In a similar vein, Turkey exported Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ethiopia in 2021 when Tigrayan rebels were marching on Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian army began deploying Turkish armed drones within a month against Tigrayan rebels. In both cases, Turkish armed drones proved highly effective and led to an escalation of violence. 

General al-Burhan shaking hands with Turkish Ambassador to Sudan at Port Sudan International Airport

Will Turkey provide armed drones to Burhan as well? We do not know for certain for now. The content of the meeting between Erdoğan and Burhan is not disclosed. And the leaders did not hold a press conference after they met. Nonetheless, Burhan received a warm welcome with full honors as a visiting head of state by Erdoğan, not as a warlord seeking to strengthen his position in a civil war. Turkey’s ambassador to Sudan, İsmail Çobanoğlu, was among the officials at Port Sudan Airport before Burhan’s departure to Ankara. These are clear indications that Turkey may be inclined to support the Sudanese Armed Forces in the ongoing civil war. Besides, Erdoğan has an ideological affinity with General Burhan, who probably has roots in Sudan’s Kizan Islamists. 

If these meetings prove enticing to Erdoğan, we may soon witness the flow of Turkish weapons into the Sudanese civil war. The success of this armament program also hinges on the outcome of Burhan's forthcoming visit to the United Arab Emirates, which reportedly backs the RSF. Notably, Ankara has recently normalized its relations with the UAE and is unlikely to engage in another proxy war, as it did in Libya. 

A peaceful and diplomatic resolution remains the best option to end the Sudanese civil war. Burhan was presented with this option during his visit to Ankara. To this end, Ankara could host a meeting between Burhan and Hemedthi, and if materialized, this could represent a significant diplomatic victory for Erdoğan. However, if Burhan chooses the path of war, which seems probable, Erdoğan may be keen on selling Turkish armed drones, particularly those produced by his son-in-law, Selçuk Bayraktar. If Burhan can convince Erdoğan that substantial gains will be made in Sudan, Erdoğan may become more interested in Africa’s latest civil war.

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